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Curly abundance versus spindly cool (Image: Archi Banal)
Curly abundance versus spindly cool (Image: Archi Banal)

KaiJuly 31, 2023

In defence of curly parsley

Curly abundance versus spindly cool (Image: Archi Banal)
Curly abundance versus spindly cool (Image: Archi Banal)

It’s time for a curly parsley renaissance, argues Anna Rawhiti-Connell. And at least one famous chef is sort of supportive.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

One of my favourite things to cook is aglio olio. It’s a rustic Italian pasta made famous in Hamilton by Scotts Epicurean. I ate it at least once a week when I lived there as an adult. I have been attempting to replicate their version ever since.

It’s a dish that seems very simple but involves perfecting several art forms – emulsification, al dente pasta and the fine slicing of garlic so that it almost melts into the oil. There are just six ingredients – spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, chilli, parmesan and parsley. Scotts went big on the parsley and a perfectly portioned bowl of pasta would arrive at your table, coloured bright green. It’s the first dish I really remember eating where parsley played a starring role.

The Scotts Epicurean aglio olio (Photo: Supplied)

The most satisfying aspect of making aglio olio is the time spent finely chopping parsley. Curly parsley. Not Italian flat-leaf parsley. Never Italian flat-leaf.

My devotion to curly parsley for this dish is underpinned by an ongoing inability to grow Italian flat-leaf parsley in abundance. I loathe the spindly plants and bundles on offer at supermarkets. It’s stalky and meagre when compared to its curly cousin. When it comes to parsley, I prefer a fulsome bush.

According to popular culinary opinion, I stand somewhat isolated in my love of this herb. Apparently, it’s all over for curly and has been for a long time. It’s now maligned as a remnant of the 80s. Nothing but mere garnish on a plate of curried eggs or a sprig to be tossed on a bit of beef schnitzel. It was declared “uncool” by Bon Appetit in 2016. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Richard Cornish wrote in 2020 that curly parsley was “daggy” and its sole purpose was to adorn meat trays. The Guardian asked what the point of curly parsley was in 2021.

I existed in a bubble of blissful ignorance about this until last year when one of my brothers came around and looked disdainfully at my lovely pots of curly parsley that I have successfully been growing for years. “Why are you growing that?” he asked.

My sad Italian flat-leaf parsley. Sorry you have to see it. It’s winter but it always looks like this (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

I have remained in a state of defiance and confusion ever since. Determined to defend curly parsley, I am insistent that its fall from favour is due to the cyclical and bourgeois nature of food trends. I convinced myself last week that if I were to test this theory with chefs, they would agree.

Ben Bayly pinpoints the demise of curly parsley to “the time when we realised that carbonara didn’t have cream, bacon and mushrooms in it”. Round one to Bayly with this sick burn that dates my devotion to curly parsley to a time of culinary ignorance. He says Italian food has been so bastardised by the Brits and “at some point, we realised that we loved authentic Italian cuisine”.

Bayly rates Italian flat-leaf parsley over curly, would only use curly in soups or purees and in response to my question about why it’s unabundant in my garden, says that at his place “flat-leaf grows like weeds, self-seeds and more just keeps popping up”, suggesting it’s a soil thing. Bayly owns the restaurants Ahi and Origine in Auckland and is an award-winning chef. I am filling in for Charlotte Muru-Lanning, The Spinoff’s brilliant food writer and editor of The Boil Up. I think it’s pretty obvious that readers know who to back here.

Pressing on, I ask Jamie Hogg for his thoughts on parsley. He confirms that in his time as a chef, the flat Italian form is the only parsley he has “professionally been associated with”. This is despite eating scrambled eggs made by his dad that were “one-third curly parsley”. Hogg thinks flat-leaf has a stronger flavour and better mouthfeel but does say tabbouleh wouldn’t be complete without curly parsley. It’s one small victory for me and one giant leap for curly parsley as far as I am concerned.

Once again, though, another expert, this time the former head chef at Waiheke’s Oyster Inn, confirms that my devotion to the curly herb is a bit dated. “A lot of old-school French dishes call for curly parsley, which can give a great flavour and texture to a dish.” Hogg tactfully provides some comfort about my inability to grow flat-leaf by admitting he has failed at growing both types. My quest to gently lift curly parsley back to the heights at which it deserves to soar is bolstered by him saying that curly parsley is more satisfying to chop.

I ignore his comment about flat-leaf having more flavour and colour and instead cling to his sign-off that says he’s rooting for the underdog.

Josh Emett as I imagine he might look when being supportive of my call for a curly parsley renaissance (Photo: Supplied)

My last port of call is Josh Emett. He provides me with the villain I am looking for, the reason everyone decided curly parsley was not cool. He blames the use of curly parsley as a garnish for its demise as a bonafide herb hero. Its use as decoration at buffets helped kill its reputation as edible and delicious vegetation. While the owner of Onslow, The Oyster Inn and hasselback potato global superstar says you would use each parsley for different things, he says he loves curly parsley. He makes the interesting point that issues with suppliers during the pandemic often meant certain herbs weren’t available and restaurants got better at using what was on hand. He says curly parsley is being used more. He stops short of describing a resurgent use of the herb as a renaissance but seems supportive of me doing so.

I asked Bayly if people would be horrified to receive a dish garnished with parsley these days. He says yes, but that we can evaluate this issue in the next decade. “Things go in cycles,” he says. When the cycle finally comes around, I will be here, brandishing this defence of curly parsley, dancing upon a grave strewn with the spindly flat-leaf variety.  And in case you were wondering, Scotts Epicurean uses the superior form of parsley for its signature dish.

Keep going!